Dr. Martin Krzywinski - Sense and Sensibility - Visual Design Principles for Scientific Data

March 17, 2020

Date: Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

Time: 2:30 PM 

Location: BPK Seminar Room (K9622/9624)

Host: Dr. Leanne Ramer &  Kyle Dumont (MSc. Student)

Title: Sense and Sensibility—Visual Design Principles for Scientific Data


Well-designed figures can illustrate complex concepts and patterns that may be difficult to express concisely in words. Figures that are clear, concise and attractive are effective–they form a strong connection with the reader and communicate with immediacy. These qualities can be achieved by employing principles of graphic design, which are based on our understanding of how we perceive, interpret and organize visual information.

Because figures often act as a first explanation, it is critical to distinguish essentials from details and merely interesting tangents. While everything may indeed be important, initially some things are more important than others are. Classifying aspects of the science, this way always feels risky—how do I know that I know enough to justify leaving things out?

We all use words to communicate information–our ability to do so is extremely sophisticated. We have large vocabularies, understand a variety of verbal and written styles and effortlessly parse errors in real time. But when we need to present complex information visually, we may find ourselves at a ‘loss for words’, graphically speaking. 

Do images and graphics possess the same qualities as the spoken or written word? Can they be concise and articulate? Are there rules and guidelines for visual vocabulary and grammar? How can we focus the viewer’s attention to emphasize a point? Can we modulate the tone and volume of visual communication? These and other questions are broadly addressed through design, which is the conscious application of visual and organizational principles to communication. All of us have already been schooled in ‘written design’ (grammar) and most of us have had some experience with ‘verbal design’ (public speaking) but relatively few have had training in ‘visual design’ (information design and visualization).

This talk distills core concepts of information design into practical guidelines for creating scientific figures. Using works submitted by students and colleagues, I will show you my process of designing and redesigning figures to help you with visualizing and communication information for your posters and publications.

Martin Krzywinski is known for his work in bioinformatics, data visualization and the interface of science and art. He applies design, both data and artistic, to assist discovery, explanation and engagement with scientific data and concepts. His information graphics have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Scientific American and covers of numerous books and scientific journals such as Nature and Genome Research. He is also a staff scientist, Bioinformatics at the Genome Sceinces Centre of BC Cancer Agency.